Posted on June 14, 2018 by staff

Northern Rail picked the wrong man to block on Twitter


Other than a passing resemblance to the singer Ed Sheeran, software engineer Nicholas Mitchell doesn’t really stand out from the crowd.

The 31-year-old software engineer spends £23 on a weekly train pass from his home in Urmston to Manchester Piccadilly for his job at Shaping Cloud and, like thousands of other commuters, became increasingly frustrated at the growing number of delayed and cancelled trains.

“I was going home from work and the trains were cancelled three days in a row,” he recalled in an interview with BusinessCloud. “There were back-to-back cancellations each day. There were two to three-hour gaps with no trains.”

Mitchell took to Twitter to complain to Northern Rail and as the delays continued so did his tweets – until the company blocked him. That triggered a course of events that saw the train operator pilloried all the way to Parliament.

Whilst information about a cancelled service is publicly available prior to a train’s planned arrival, once that time has passed there is no permanent record.

This makes it almost impossible to know how frequent the cancellations are – which is where Mitchell’s ‘Northern Fail’ app came in.

With the help of his colleagues at Shaping Cloud, the angry commuter spent around 12 hours creating the app that collected data to show the problem of cancelled trains all in one place.

The app combined three publicly available datasets to record the total number of cancellations on any given day, and the total number of cancellations since the app was first launched four weeks ago.

“It highlights their incompetence by simply showing the data,” he told BusinessCloud. “It was fun making it. I like making things. It’s what I do in and out of work. I can’t describe how easy it was to make without sounding big-headed!”

The app was launched before the infamous timetable change, which resulted in scores of additional cancellations and delays and created a media storm.

As a result Mitchell’s ‘Northern Fail’ app was downloaded 12,500 times, mentioned in parliament and cited by countless MPs and politicians.

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham even tweeted Mitchell to say: “You have done everyone a service and exposed the scale of this failure. Well done.”

Off the back of the app’s success, Mitchell became the reluctant face of the movement to improve rail services, appearing on BBC’s The One Show and turning down several other media requests.

Mitchell has also received widespread support from frustrated commuters, even receiving a message from one of Northern Rail’s own drivers.

“He contacted me on Facebook to give me a pat on the back and said I should keep up the good work,” explained Mitchell.

“He said even he and his drivers rely on the app for up-to-date information because it’s more accurate than their own control signalling system.”

“If the data’s out there but it’s not understandable or easy to use, then it doesn’t get people going.”

Mitchell’s employer and fellow big data advocate Carlos Oliveira agreed.

“That accountability and transparency, it became a rallying effort,” explained Oliveira, who is Shaping Cloud’s founder and CEO. The company has created a piece of software called Spinr, which connects public sector data with applications.

“The whole thing really gathered momentum, we were surprised by how much it took off, but it emphases that organisations and the public sector should appreciate that the data they hold can be turned into something much more powerful,” said Oliveira.

BusinessCloud contacted Northern Rail for comment, and the company denied that the app had had any impact on the improvement in services.